At a recent rally in Fresno County, Calif., farmers in plaid shirts stood side by side with migrant farmworkers in ball caps, holding signs that read "sin agua, no futuro" and "no water, no food." Fresno is the top agriculture-producing county in the U.S., with more than $6 billion in annual sales.
Protesters argued that farms could go out of business without more water, and there would be mass layoffs. That rhetoric may be familiar, but the two groups' alliance is decidedly unusual.
"I'm really tickled to death to see the farmworkers working with the farmers. We've never seen that before," says Victor Lopez, the former longtime mayor of a nearby farm town called Orange Cove.
Lopez co-founded a group called the Latino Water Coalition, which organized the rally. In the '60s, Lopez marched with Cesar Chavez in the fight against growers for better conditions for farmworkers. For him, those old wounds have healed. He says the current water crisis is leading people across the political spectrum to mobilize. They're doing all they can to pressure, lobby and plead with the federal government to bring relief — because Mother Nature isn't.
"For the first time in the history — I've been a farmworker the majority of my life, and I've never seen the coalitions that have been formed — farmers and the farmworkers have united," Lopez says. "This is an issue that's going to affect the world."
More Strange Bedfellows
A pair of bills pending in Congress would ease environmental restrictions in the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That could send some excess water south into a federal canal system. Some recent rains have also started to help fill reservoirs again. On Friday, federal regulators said they were able to send a tiny bit more water to cities and some farms, instead of saving every last drop for next year in case the drought persists.
"If we've got the choice of either dying this year or dying next year, we'd prefer dying next year," says Mario Santoyo with a laugh.
It's the message he gave to White House officials when he visited Washington last week. Santoyo is the assistant general manager of a large water agency in Fresno that secures irrigation for 15,000 farmers. His is just one of several delegations of water officials and elected leaders racking up frequent-flier miles between the Central Valley and the Beltway right now. An analysis by member station KPCC and the Center for Responsive Politics found that Westlands Water District, one of the largest water agencies here, has spent $600,000 on lobbying.
Santoyo's group is planning another trip for next week.
"We don't have months and months and months and months to think about this," he says. "We only have a few more months before farmers either survive or they don't."
Santoyo says the focus now is on a group of Senate Republicans who have yet to sign on to a bill by Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Her measure is an example of another unlikely political alliance forming amid the drought. By siding with House Republicans who want to ease environmental restrictions, Feinstein has alienated some of her most staunch supporters: environmentalists.
"We've created in California an unsustainable water system where those who have political power and money really can put pressure on the government to deliver the water that they feel that they are entitled to," says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the group Restore the Delta.
Feinstein recently removed a provision in her bill that would have sent millions of dollars in federal aid to nonprofits that help farmworkers and others affected by job losses. It was seen as a move to make the bill more palatable to Republicans. It could also be a first test of how deep these political alliances really are, and if they could ever extend beyond the water crisis.